In his new book ‘Chatter’, University of Michigan psychology professor Ethan Kross explores how we can harness – and control – our inner monologues.
By Eric Adelson
When we log onto Facebook, we get a loaded question: “What’s on your mind?”
This question is different, and cloudier, than Twitter’s “What’s happening?” It hints toward something more incomplete, more personal, more difficult to answer.
“What’s on your mind?” is just one question Ethan Kross approaches in his debut book, Chatter, which came out earlier this year. The psychology professor at the University of Michigan has spent years examining the voices in our heads, what they say, and how to respond to them. He even started the university’s “Emotion and Self-Control Lab, which essentially studies how self-control works.
Kross says the voices in our heads are part of who we are — “the ability to use language to reflect on your life.” He says sometimes they bubble with excitement and optimism. But often they feel like naysayers, or even haters. The voices sometimes undermine us. Asked to define “chatter,” Kross calls it “getting stuck in a negative thought loop.”
How do we fix that? It’s a question sparked in part by one of Kross’ students, who asked him why no one had taught her or her classmates how to manage their mind and emotions earlier in life. “That was a moment,” Kross says, “that led me to start thinking about how to spread what we had learned beyond academia.”
His student was clearly onto something. Chatter has been named one of the best new books of the year by multiple publications, is scheduled to be translated into 35 languages, and has landed Kross media coverage ranging from Good Morning America to Shape magazine. And it makes sense. After all, who among us doesn’t want the ability to control our negative thoughts?
One of the many scenes Kross sets in Chatter takes place in Manhattan, with its teeming mass of pedestrians, bikers, and commuters. He shifts from the sea of faces to the ocean of drifting, silent monologues — “a hidden thought-scape of rich and active internal conversations,” he writes. And he would know: His odyssey to Chatter began as a boy in Brooklyn, where he grew up observing his father. “My dad was not a college grad,” Kross, 41, says. “He loved watching the Yankees. A lifelong meditator. You could find him in a lotus position with a cigarette.”
Kross remembers one piece of his dad’s advice — “Go inside, tap into the voice, and find a solution” — that helped him all the way through college at the University of Pennsylvania. He noticed that some of his friends were able to “tap into the voice,” and they seemed to handle adversity a little better. “That, to me,” he says, “was fascinating.”
Kross speaks as a dad himself; during this interview, he’s driving to the airport with his family for vacation. That trek sparks internal questions we all ask ourselves — “Did I turn on the alarm? Will my suitcase surpass the 50-pound limit?” — but it’s the deeper chatter Kross wants to address. It’s the questions that spiral into fear and anxiety and self-doubt and sadness and even trauma. In the book he calls it a “gaping pothole” in the “road of thought.”
The knee-jerk response is to try to shut off the spigot, says Kross, who began teaching at the U-M in 2008 after getting his Ph.D. at Columbia. He says that’s counterproductive. “Lots of people think you should try to silence the voice,” he says. “I would not recommend that. Think about all the wonderful things a voice can do for you. There are boatloads of tools that exist. Give people a map; here are where these tools are, and how they work.”
It’s healthier, Kross says, to get separation from your negative thoughts. That’s done in two ways. First, through ‘distanced self-talk.’ That may even include addressing yourself internally by using your own name. It’s a sort of bird’s-eye view of yourself.
The second perspective is by wielding time to your advantage. “Right before bed I got an email that was not pleasant,” he says, offering his own personal encounter with chatter. “I thought, ‘What if this happens?’ I stopped. ‘How are you going to feel about this in the morning? Or next week?’ It’s traveling in time in your mind.”
It’s a lot easier to get control of harmful thoughts with some distance — even if it’s mentally manufactured distance. Instead of confronting negativity all around, now you’re watching it from afar. And maybe then the problem doesn’t look like a waterfall, but rather a rivulet. After all, how many of your problems as you read this will be your problems a week from now? Some surely will; others will be long forgotten.
Kross — who says the race to make deadlines for the book sparked a boatload of chatter —is careful to point out that feeling better isn’t always thinking better. The idea is to manage the chatter, not necessarily numb it. “It’s not just helping me vent,” he says, “but helping me reframe.” Another ally: nature. Kross says the outdoors provides stimuli and perspective that invites our attention and quiets our nagging inner voice.
Kross cautions that the intensity and duration of chatter can get to an “extreme,” which can be a sign of mental illness. Still, it’s important to remember that the voices in your head don’t mean you’re abnormal. “If my readers are experiencing chatter,” Kross says, “Congratulations, they’re human.”
For more information about the University of Michigan Emotion and Self Control Lab click here.